Kurt Elling on the Jazz Path and His Unique Style

Jazz Journal: What led him down the jazz path?
“I was always peripherally aware of some main ingredients like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and such, but it wasn't until I was in university that some friends were playing Herbie Hancock, Dexter Gordon and people like that, and I really liked all that stuff right away.

“It happened that there were opportunities for me to start sitting in with bands and I knew the lyrics to a bunch of songs thanks to recordings of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. For some reason I had a kind of swinging sensibility of some kind from the start, at least compared to other students. I definitely had an adventuresome streak that appealed to the musicians. I wanted to start improvising right away even though I was flying by the seat of my pants.

“When I returned back to Chicago to go to graduate school I was sitting in with many of Chicago's best jazz musicians. Every place I went it seemed like they enjoyed it and they wanted me to come back. They tapped me on my shoulder and made sure they knew my name and said 'Come on back, son.' That kind of experience happened to me again where more established, older musicians would make an effort to call me aside and encourage me, so I really owe it to the musicians I encountered. They helped me realise my vocation.

“When I got hip to what Jon Hendricks has been up to all these years, and Mark Murphy, I went to see them live. That was the big turning point. I figured I had some extremely potent examples of what it would mean to be a jazz singer.”

JJ: I asked how he created his style, which is really original.

“It's kind of you to say. Well, I have done my homework on the jazz singers, at least to understand what each of them brought to the table that was unique, and to understand it, and to add what I could of those great artists to my own work. I've made a study of Mark, and Jon, Joe Williams, Mel Tormé and Betty Carter. It's kind of the homework you should do to be a jazz person.

“Then I realised that I come from a different era. I come from a different background. Some things may be the same, like Jon's father was a minister and my dad was a church musician. That part of it is not uncommon – for church people to give birth to jazz people.

“But I'm kind of a middle-aged man now, which means I did not grow up in the 40s or 50s or even the 60s, so I think a lot of it has to do with the time frame in which I have become of age, and a lot of it has to do with the books I've read and the way I've made my way through life. The moves are intuitive and you follow your heart, and the thing that sounds good to you in that moment. ”